Ridiculous clients and fearful PR agencies

“Pris, Today’s such a crappy day!!” A friend who was in a PR agency complained to me when who met up this afternoon. She went on to tell me about this particular demanding client of hers. I listened to her story with sympathy and great amusement.
What happened was that the client was expecting a news coverage over the weekend (for an interview/ event held last week) and it did not happen. This morning, the story came out in The Straits Times (note to my foreign friends who are reading this, The Straits Times is one of Singapore’s national English broadsheets). So, you would think, the client must be happy? Apparently not.

The client emailed my friend and the boss a note saying along the line of “We need a front page story!”

Unfortunately, the story came out in one of the news pages in The Straits Times, not too small but not the front page.

I rolled my eyes when I heard that. How do you explain to such clients that it is not only a tall order but it is an unreasonable and ridiculous demand?

It is very common for clients to ask PR agencies to perform tasks that are not only unreasonable, most of the times, they are totally ridiculous, especially when all the information the client can offer is not even newsworthy enough for a small column?
I was reading an interesting  The INQ’s article and I find a lot of truths in there:-

Because clients are as unreasonable as most journalists, by and large. They produce little widgets and expect their PRs to get a front page splash on the Financial Times. If the miserable PR manages to get any mention in said paper, the client will see it and rip the coverage to pieces, forgetting in the process that a journo is not a tool of the PR …

I was also reading Peter Shankman’s book that I mentioned in my last post and there is this rather funny paragraph that I just have to include here.

 I remembered a friend once called me, furious that the reporter didn’t mention him in a second story he did on my friend’s industry.

“Why should he have mentioned you?” I asked my friend.

“Because after he didn’t mention my company in the first story, I called him up and ripped him a new one! I told him that he should be ashamed of himself and not even call himself a journalist if he didn’t do his basic homework to realise that my company is in the space he covered!”

I find myself smiling when I read this. It reminded me of an ex-client who was (I used “was” because it seems to have disappeared, probably ceased operations), a very small player in a particular industry but he insisted that we get a story in the main dailies about his company as “the next big thing!”  and when there were stories about the big players in the industry and his company was not mentioned (because it was new, small and had alot of product flaws), he jumped and demanded that we explained why the company was not highlighted in the story.

Ok, the BIG question here is – Why then did PR agencies allow themselves to be stepped on all over by the clients’ unreasonable demands?

Fear! Yes, fear of losing the clients. Some PR professionals and even the bosses/ MDs/ Directors bend over and compromise to the extend of reducing integrity – just so to keep the client “happy”. Some will attempt to explain, offer alternatives, attempt to help the client to see the bigger picture and most of the times, the clients have their ways and some crappy campaigns were produced with unreasonable expectations and the miserable PR people had to annoy the hell out of journalists to try to get that “front page story.”

Andrew B. Smith wrote the following and again, I see alot of truth in there:-

However, to ask the journalist how much coverage the client can expect is clearly a redundant question – aside from the fact that it is up to the publication to decide how much space a story gets, this can’t be predicted or guaranteed in advance – and certainly not without any information on which to make even an educated guess. A bit like being asked to guarantee the outcome of a race when you have no idea who the runners and riders are.

I am trying to find out from my friend what she and her boss did to reply/ explain to the client about NOT GETTING the front page story.

Another PR person told me, “PR is definitely a misunderstood profession.” PR people are constantly under fire and often caught in between many different groups of people. There are many great PR people around, who are highly skilled, trained and have great credential. Perhaps, some “black sheeps” in the industry should be blamed for the bad name of PR. Perhaps there is just very limited understanding of what PR can or cannot do. Without the right understanding, things get misunderstood and resulted in grievance.

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15 thoughts on “Ridiculous clients and fearful PR agencies

  1. The increasing, not to mention demanding, need of clients expecting the impossible is relative to the greater emphasis on ROI. Marketeers are being pressurized by their bosses who are in turn responsible to stakeholders of the company, to increase ROI. Given that a good number of them would turn to short-term results as opposed to long-term ones just as to shut their bosses up, what do they end up doing? They cut the marketing budget quite naturally. And between advertising and PR, I imagine the latter being perceived as the return. Little wonder why they end up demanding greater PR coverage. Such myopic strategy’s a little unfortunate, if you ask me.

  2. hahaha.. just reading this made me feel slightly less alone.. -)

    it’s true, there are so many factors, and usually i find that PR gets an unjustified pointed finger.. it’s almost as if people treat PR as the unwanted step sister of journalists.

    but i ain’t here to start a war, and i guess we also have to be careful not to be self defensive all the time.. sometimes i find myself blaming someone else, but maybe i can only blame myself for being irrelevant.

    so yes! a great post, i think for those of us caught in between, we need to rise up and lead the charge instead of being torn up with the rest of the budget.

    Unfortunately, that comes with a certain re-education of the perception of PR measurement and how front page news is not always the best news. like say, FRONT PAGE SCANDAL!

  3. The value of PR lies in the fact that we are able to get the product/service/idea mentioned in the media on its own merit. If every PR agency can get their every client’s (often pathetic) news on the front page, then what’s the value of front page news? What’s the value of PR versus say, ads?

    If the client is so eager to appear on the front page, or create so much news that everyone would be talking about it, then either pay money to put up an ad, or like brian suggested, do something really outrageous like break the law or kill somebody through the PR stunt or something.

    PR just doesn’t work this way. And the day it does, PR would cease to be PR.

  4. Pat, I agree with you. In many companies, PR gets the “left-over” budget from the marketing head, who probably use it more than half of it for advertising and another quarter for something else, whatever is unused – throw to PR and then expect some miracles from PR.

    DK, exactly what i say too. heh

  5. Brian, great thoughts there. I was reading various news and online posts about the latest MDA’s rap video and sure, it has probably gotten some great hits but a huge percentage of those hits – negative.

    I am hoping to be a good client when dealing with PR agencies in future.

    Matthew! I love your comments, as usual. I sent them to my friend and urge her to share with the client. haaaa

  6. PR consultants/agencies are fearful when they don’t know what their real job is.

    Ask any consultant to list his/her top five tags for PR and you’ll know the level of his thinking.

    If “media relations” and “pitching stories” are in that list, you’ll know what’s going to rattle his nerves… and yours!

  7. I think what more PR agencies could do is to educate their clients on the processes involved. Let them in on what happens in the newsroom and why certain stories will always get more mileage than others.

    Newspapers are written from back to front, with page one being the last page to be written. This is to accommodate any HUGE breaking news, which is usually negative. This is why occasionally, you will find that the news editor is bylined for those stories.

    I have heard before from a journo friend that a bad news day is actually a good news day. Sometimes, editors even celebrate when a huge tragedy occur (after of course offering their condolences and saying their prayers). This is because everybody knows (or at least should know) that bad news sell a lot better than good news!

    I don’t think client education would necessarily result in your client “DIY-ing” and hence the agency losing his or her business. On the contrary, it may help to clear all the misconceptions about PR from the onset. Hmmm…. sounds like somethign I should blog about!

  8. I agree that rising expectations from clients – with marketers having to show ever-increasing ROI to their bosses – is one of the key reasons that lead to unreasonable demands being placed on PR agencies.

    My experience that you can’t even logically explain away to clients why their coverage is delayed/small/missing/poor/inaccurate. They want absolutes – if I pay you $X, I demand Y. If I don’t get it, I’ll shop for another agency who can.

    Unfortunately, too many agencies are complicit and shortsighted, and so agree to such demands despite knowing better.

    Is it a wonder that the industry starts an irreversible slide towards unprofitability and mediocrity?

  9. Walter — I believe in what we call “media training” for clients. I have worked with clients whose spokesperson/s were sent for training on not only how media works but what PR can help achieve. Those clients usually ended up as great clients to work with and at the end of day, we could see better results that both parties were happy with. Now that I am going to move to the “client” side, it is interesting…

    Estee — where are you working at now?

    Daniel — it is true that, at times clients have their marketing budget cut, thus lesser amount of money for above-the-line communications. The burden is then put on PR to perform.

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